The scientific tourist #41 — MiG-15

This week’s image comes to you from the San Diego Air & Space Museum — it’s a Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-15 fighter:

The MiG-15 was one of the first successful swept-wing jet fighters — and made quite a name for itself during the Korean War. But that’s not where its story begins…

The idea of using a swept wing to help a plane fly faster was first raised in Germany in the 1930’s . Essentially the idea is that for transonic (high, but subsonic) speeds, the sweep of the wings reduces the drag forces experienced on the wing — by up to a factor of four. But at the time, no way was seen to power an aircraft to such speeds, so swept wings were nearly forgotten as an academic solution to a non-existent problem.

During WWII, wind-tunnel testing in Germany proved that swept wings did all that was promised of them. Still, they didn’t gather much attention until the German Me-262 was flying, and demonstrating the control problems that came with high-speed flight using an essentially non-swept wing. By the end of the war, a number of swept-wing fighters were at various stages of design and construction in Germany — and this didn’t escape the notice of engineers in the U.S., U.K., and Soviet Union.

It was in the U.S.S.R. that swept wings first found enthusiastic proponents. Stalin, ever the paranoiac, was convinced that the Soviet Union was in imminent danger of western attack — and drove his engineers to produce the fastest jet fighter they could muster. They quickly settled on the basic design of the MiG-15, but had trouble reverse-engineering the German Juno jet engine used in the Me-262 (more on this engine in another post…). Fortunately for them, the U.K. in the post war years had a rather naive Prime Minister and pro-Soviet Trade Minister — with a bit of prompting, the U.K. gave them 25 Rolls Royce jet engines as a good-will gesture, along with a license to manufacture more of them.

The Soviets promptly tossed the license agreement aside, and produced a local variant of the Rolls Royce Nene engine for the MiG-15. This resulted by 1948 in the mass production of the scrappy little fighter that would cause U.S. / U.N. pilots so much trouble in the Korean War.

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